Friday, 29 November 2013

Why I am an Atheist: Bhagat Singh 1931

Written: October 5–6, 1930
Source/Translated: Converted from the original Gurmukhi (Punjabi) to Urdu/Persian script by Maqsood Saqib;
translated from Urdu to English by Hasan for, 2006;
HTML/Proofread: Andy Blunden and Mike Bessler;
CopyLeft: Creative Common (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

It is a matter of debate whether my lack of belief in the existence of an Omnipresent, Omniscient God is due to my arrogant pride and vanity. It never occurred to me that sometime in the future I would be involved in polemics of this kind. As a result of some discussions with my friends, (if my claim to friendship is not uncalled for) I have realised that after having known me for a little time only, some of them have reached a kind of hasty conclusion about me that my atheism is my foolishness and that it is the outcome of my vanity. Even then it is a serious problem. I do not boast of being above these human follies. I am, after all, a human being and nothing more. And no one can claim to be more than that. I have a weakness in my personality, for pride is one of the human traits that I do possess. I am known as a dictator among my friends. Sometimes I am called a boaster. Some have always been complaining that I am bossy and I force others to accept my opinion. Yes, it is true to some extent. I do not deny this charge. We can use the word ‘vainglory’ for it. As far as the contemptible, obsolete, rotten values of our society are concerned, I am an extreme sceptic. But this question does not concern my person alone. It is being proud of my ideas, my thoughts. It cannot be called empty pride. Pride, or you may use the word, vanity, both mean an exaggerated assessment of one’s personality. Is my atheism because of unnecessary pride, or have I ceased believing in God after thinking long and deep on the matter? I wish to put my ideas before you. First of all, let us differentiate between pride and vanity as these are two different things.
I have never been able to understand how unfounded, baseless pride or empty vanity can hinder a person from believing in God. I may refuse to acknowledge the greatness of a really great person only when I have got fame without doing any serious efforts or when I lack the superior mental powers necessary to become great. It is easy to understand but how is it possible that a believer can turn into a non-believer because of his vanity? Only two things are possible: either a man deems himself to be in possession of Godly qualities, or he goes a step further and declares himself to be a god. In both these states of mind he cannot be an atheist in the true sense of the word. In the first case, it is not an outright rejection of God’s existence; in the other, he is affirming the existence of some kind of supernatural power responsible for the working of universe. It does not harm our argument whether he claims to be a god or considers God to be a reality in existence above his own being. The real point, however, is that in both cases he is a theist, a believer. He is not an atheist. I want to bring home this point to you. I am not one of these two creeds. I totally reject the existence of an Omnipresent, all powerful, all knowing God. Why so? I will discuss it later in the essay. Here I wish to emphasise that I am not an atheist for the reason that I am arrogant or proud or vain; nor am I a demi-god, nor a prophet; no, nor am I God myself. At least one thing is true that I have not evolved this thought because of vanity or pride. In order to answer this question I relate the truth. My friends say that after Delhi bombing and Lahore Conspiracy Case, I rocketed to fame and that this fact has turned my head. Let us discuss why this allegation is incorrect. I did not give up my belief in God after these incidents. I was an atheist even when I was an unknown figure. At least a college student cannot cherish any sort of exaggerated notion of himself that may lead him to atheism. It is true that I was a favourite with some college teachers, but others did not like me. I was never a hardworking or studious boy. I never got an opportunity to be proud. I was very careful in my behaviour and somewhat pessimistic about my future career. I was not completely atheistic in my beliefs. I was brought up under the care and protection of my father. He was a staunch Arya Samaji. An Arya Samaji can be anything but never an atheist. After my elementary education, I was sent to D. A. V College, Lahore. I lived in the boarding house for one year. Besides prayers early in the morning and at dusk time, I sat for hours and chanted religious Mantras. At that time, I was a staunch believer. Then I lived with my father. He was a tolerant man in his religious views. It is due to his teachings that I devoted my life for the cause of liberating my country. But he was not an atheist. His God was an all-pervading Entity. He advised me to offer my prayers every day. In this way I was brought up. In the Non-cooperation days, I got admission to the National College. During my stay in this college, I began thinking over all the religious polemics such that I grew sceptical about the existence of God. In spite of this fact I can say that my belief in God was firm and strong. I grew a beard and ‘Kais’ (long head of hair as a Sikh religious custom). In spite of this I could not convince myself of the efficacy of Sikh religion or any religion at all, for that matter. But I had an unswerving, unwavering belief in God.
Then I joined the Revolutionary Party. The first leader I met had not the courage to openly declare himself an atheist. He was unable to reach any conclusion on this point. Whenever I asked him about the existence of God, he gave me this reply: “You may believe in him when you feel like it.” The second leader with whom I came in contact was a firm believer. I should mention his name. It was our respected Comrade Sachindara Nath Sanyal. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with Karachi conspiracy case. Right from the first page of his only book, ‘Bandi Jivan’ (Incarnated Life) he sings praises to the Glory of God. See the last page of the second part of this book and you find praises showered upon God in the way of a mystic. It is a clear reflection of his thoughts.
According to the prosecution, the ‘Revolutionary Leaflet’ which was distributed throughout India was the outcome of Sachindara Nath Sanyal’s intellectual labour. So often it happens that in revolutionary activities a leader expresses his own ideas which may be very dear to him, but in spite of having differences, the other workers have to acquiesce in them.
In that leaflet, one full paragraph was devoted to the praises of God and His doings which we, human beings, cannot understand. This is sheer mysticism. What I want to point out is that the idea of denying the existence of God did not even occur to the Revolutionary Party. The famous Kakory martyrs, all four of them, passed their last day in prayers. Ram Parshad Bismal was a staunch Arya Samaji. In spite of his vast studies in Socialism and Communism, Rajan Lahiri could not suppress his desire to recite hymns from Upanishads and Gita. There was but only one person among them who did not indulge in such activities. He used to say, “Religion is the outcome of human weakness or the limitation of human knowledge.” He is also in prison for life. But he also never dared to deny the existence of God.
Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. For some time, a strong opposition put the very existence of the party into danger. Many leaders as well as many enthusiastic comrades began to uphold the party to ridicule. They jeered at us. I had an apprehension that some day I will also consider it a futile and hopeless task. It was a turning point in my revolutionary career. An incessant desire to study filled my heart. ‘Study more and more’, said I to myself so that I might be able to face the arguments of my opponents. ‘Study’ to support your point of view with convincing arguments. And I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking. At times of terrible necessity, we can resort to extreme methods, but violence produces opposite results in mass movements. I have talked much about our methods. The most important thing was a clear conception of our ideology for which we were waging a long struggle. As there was no election activity going on, I got ample opportunity to study various ideas propounded by various writers. I studied Bakunin, the anarchist leader. I read a few books of Marx, the father of Communism. I also read Lenin and Trotsky and many other writers who successfully carried out revolutions in their countries. All of them were atheists. The ideas contained in Bakunin’s ‘God and State’ seem inconclusive, but it is an interesting book. After that I came across a book ‘Common Sense’ by Nirlamba Swami. His point of view was a sort of mystical atheism. I developed more interest in this subject. By the end of 1926, I was convinced that the belief in an Almighty, Supreme Being who created, guided and controlled the universe had no sound foundations. I began discussions on this subject with my friends. I had openly declared myself an atheist. What it meant will be discussed in the following lines.
In May 1927, I was arrested in Lahore. This arrest came as a big surprise for me. I had not the least idea that I was wanted by the police. I was passing through a garden and all of a sudden the police surrounded me. To my own surprise, I was very calm at that time. I was in full control of myself. I was taken into police custody. The next day I was taken to the Railway Police lockup where I spent a whole month. After many days’ conversation with police personnel, I guessed that they had some information about my connection with the Kakori Party. I felt they had some intelligence of my other activities in the revolutionary movement. They told me that I was in Lucknow during the Kakori Party Trial so that I might devise a scheme to rescue the culprits. They also said that after the plan had been approved, we procured some bombs and by way of test, one of those bombs was thrown into a crowd on the occasion of Dussehra in 1926. They offered to release me on condition that I gave a statement on the activities of the Revolutionary Party. In this way I would be set free and even rewarded and I would not be produced as an approver in the court. I could not help laughing at their proposals. It was all humbug. People who have ideas like ours do not throw bombs at their own innocent people. One day, Mr. Newman, the then senior Superintendent of CID, came to me. After a long talk which was full of sympathetic words, he imparted to me what he considered to be sad news, that if I did not give any statement as demanded by them, they would be forced to send me up for trial for conspiracy to wage war in connection with Kakori Case and also for brutal killings in Dussehra gathering. After that he said that he had sufficient evidence to get me convicted and hanged.
I was completely innocent, but I believed that the police had sufficient power to do it if they desired it to be so. The same day some police officers persuaded me to offer my prayers to God two times regularly. I was an atheist. I thought that I would settle it to myself whether I could brag only in days of peace and happiness that I was an atheist, or in those hard times I could be steadfast in my convictions. After a long debate with myself, I reached the conclusion that I could not even pretend to be a believer nor could I offer my prayers to God. No, I never did it. It was time of trial and I would come out of it successful. These were my thoughts. Never for a moment did I desire to save my life. So I was a true atheist then and I am an atheist now. It was not an easy task to face that ordeal. Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds. In difficult times, vanity, if it remains, evaporates and man cannot find the courage to defy beliefs held in common esteem by the people. If he really revolts against such beliefs, we must conclude that it is not sheer vanity; he has some kind of extraordinary strength. This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be! A God-believing Hindu may expect to be reborn a king; a Muslim or a Christian might dream of the luxuries he hopes to enjoy in paradise as a reward for his sufferings and sacrifices. What hope should I entertain? I know that will be the end when the rope is tightened round my neck and the rafters move from under my feet. To use more precise religious terminology, that will be the moment of utter annihilation. My soul will come to nothing. If I take the courage to take the matter in the light of ‘Reward’, I see that a short life of struggle with no such magnificent end shall itself be my ‘Reward.’ That is all. Without any selfish motive of getting any reward here or in the hereafter, quite disinterestedly have I devoted my life to the cause of freedom. I could not act otherwise. The day shall usher in a new era of liberty when a large number of men and women, taking courage from the idea of serving humanity and liberating them from sufferings and distress, decide that there is no alternative before them except devoting their lives for this cause. They will wage a war against their oppressors, tyrants or exploiters, not to become kings, or to gain any reward here or in the next birth or after death in paradise; but to cast off the yoke of slavery, to establish liberty and peace they will tread this perilous, but glorious path. Can the pride they take in their noble cause be called vanity? Who is there rash enough to call it so? To him I say either he is foolish or wicked. Leave such a fellow alone for he cannot realise the depth, the emotions, the sentiment and the noble feelings that surge in that heart. His heart is dead, a mere lump of flesh, devoid of feelings. His convictions are infirm, his emotions feeble. His selfish interests have made him incapable of seeing the truth. The epithet ‘vanity’ is always hurled at the strength we get from our convictions.
You go against popular feelings; you criticise a hero, a great man who is generally believed to be above criticism. What happens? No one will answer your arguments in a rational way; rather you will be considered vainglorious. Its reason is mental insipidity. Merciless criticism and independent thinking are the two necessary traits of revolutionary thinking. As Mahatmaji is great, he is above criticism; as he has risen above, all that he says in the field of politics, religion, Ethics is right. You agree or not, it is binding upon you to take it as truth. This is not constructive thinking. We do not take a leap forward; we go many steps back.
Our forefathers evolved faith in some kind of Supreme Being, therefore, one who ventures to challenge the validity of that faith or denies the existence of God, shall be called a Kafir (infidel), or a renegade. Even if his arguments are so strong that it is impossible to refute them, if his spirit is so strong that he cannot be bowed down by the threats of misfortune that may befall him through the wrath of the Almighty, he shall be decried as vainglorious. Then why should we waste our time in such discussions? This question has come before the people for the first time, hence the necessity and usefulness of such long discussions.
As far as the first question is concerned, I think I have made it clear that I did not turn atheist because of vanity. Only my readers, not I, can decide whether my arguments carry weight. If I were a believer, I know in the present circumstances my life would have been easier; the burden lighter. My disbelief in God has turned all the circumstances too harsh and this situation can deteriorate further. Being a little mystical can give the circumstances a poetic turn. But I need no opiate to meet my end. I am a realistic man. I want to overpower this tendency in me with the help of Reason. I am not always successful in such attempts. But it is man’s duty to try and make efforts. Success depends on chance and circumstances.
Now we come to the second question: if it is not vanity, there ought to be some sound reason for rejection of age-old belief in God. Yes, I come to this question. I think that any man who has some reasoning power always tries to understand the life and people around him with the help of this faculty. Where concrete proofs are lacking, [mystical] philosophy creeps in. As I have indicated, one of my revolutionary friends used to say that “philosophy is the outcome of human weakness.” Our ancestors had the leisure to solve the mysteries of the world, its past, its present and its future, its whys and its wherefores, but having been terribly short of direct proofs, every one of them tried to solve the problem in his own way. Hence we find wide differences in the fundamentals of various religious creeds. Sometimes they take very antagonistic and conflicting forms. We find differences in Oriental and Occidental philosophies. There are differences even amongst various schools of thoughts in each hemisphere. In Asian religions, the Muslim religion is completely incompatible with the Hindu faith. In India itself, Buddhism and Jainism are sometimes quite separate from Brahmanism. Then in Brahmanism itself, we find two conflicting sects: Aarya Samaj and Snatan Dheram. Charwak is yet another independent thinker of the past ages. He challenged the Authority of God. All these faiths differ on many fundamental questions, but each of them claims to be the only true religion. This is the root of the evil. Instead of developing the ideas and experiments of ancient thinkers, thus providing ourselves with the ideological weapon for the future struggle, – lethargic, idle, fanatical as we are – we cling to orthodox religion and in this way reduce human awakening to a stagnant pool.
It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.
Any person who claims to be a realist has to challenge the truth of old beliefs. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses. After that his task should be to do the groundwork for new philosophy. This is the negative side. After that comes in the positive work in which some material of the olden times can be used to construct the pillars of new philosophy. As far as I am concerned, I admit that I lack sufficient study in this field. I had a great desire to study the Oriental Philosophy, but I could get ample opportunity or sufficient time to do so. But so far as I reject the old time beliefs, it is not a matter of countering belief with belief, rather I can challenge the efficacy of old beliefs with sound arguments. We believe in nature and that human progress depends on the domination of man over nature. There is no conscious power behind it. This is our philosophy.
Being atheist, I ask a few questions from theists:
1. If, as you believe there is an Almighty, Omnipresent, Omniscient God, who created the earth or universe, please let me know, first of all, as to why he created this world. This world which is full of woe and grief, and countless miseries, where not even one person lives in peace.
2. Pray, don’t say it is His law. If He is bound by any law, He is not Omnipotent. Don’t say it is His pleasure. Nero burnt one Rome. He killed a very limited number of people. He caused only a few tragedies, all for his morbid enjoyment. But what is his place in history? By what names do we remember him? All the disparaging epithets are hurled at him. Pages are blackened with invective diatribes condemning Nero: the tyrant, the heartless, the wicked.
One Genghis Khan killed a few thousand people to seek pleasure in it and we hate the very name. Now, how will you justify your all powerful, eternal Nero, who every day, every moment continues his pastime of killing people? How can you support his doings which surpass those of Genghis Khan in cruelty and in misery inflicted upon people? I ask why the Almighty created this world which is nothing but a living hell, a place of constant and bitter unrest. Why did he create man when he had the power not to do so? Have you any answer to these questions? You will say that it is to reward the sufferer and punish the evildoer in the hereafter. Well, well, how far will you justify a man who first of all inflicts injuries on your body and then applies soft and soothing ointment on them? How far the supporters and organizers of Gladiator bouts were justified in throwing men before half starved lions, later to be cared for and looked after well if they escaped this horrible death. That is why I ask: Was the creation of man intended to derive this kind of pleasure?
Open your eyes and see millions of people dying of hunger in slums and huts dirtier than the grim dungeons of prisons; just see the labourers patiently or say apathetically while the rich vampires suck their blood; bring to mind the wastage of human energy that will make a man with a little common sense shiver in horror. Just observe rich nations throwing their surplus produce into the sea instead of distributing it among the needy and deprived. There are palaces of kings built upon the foundations laid with human bones. Let them see all this and say “All is well in God’s Kingdom.” Why so? This is my question. You are silent. All right. I proceed to my next point.
You, the Hindus, would say: Whosoever undergoes sufferings in this life, must have been a sinner in his previous birth. It is tantamount to saying that those who are oppressors now were Godly people then, in their previous births. For this reason alone they hold power in their hands. Let me say it plainly that your ancestors were shrewd people. They were always in search of petty hoaxes to play upon people and snatch from them the power of Reason. Let us analyse how much this argument carries weight!
Those who are well versed in the philosophy of Jurisprudence relate three of four justifications for the punishment that is to be inflicted upon a wrong-doer. These are: revenge, reform, and deterrence. The Retribution Theory is now condemned by all the thinkers. Deterrent theory is on the anvil for its flaws. Reformative theory is now widely accepted and considered to be necessary for human progress. It aims at reforming the culprit and converting him into a peace-loving citizen. But what in essence is God’s Punishment even if it is inflicted on a person who has really done some harm? For the sake of argument we agree for a moment that a person committed some crime in his previous birth and God punished him by changing his shape into a cow, cat, tree, or any other animal. You may enumerate the number of these variations in Godly Punishment to be at least eighty-four lack. Tell me, has this tomfoolery, perpetrated in the name of punishment, any reformative effect on human man? How many of them have you met who were donkeys in their previous births for having committed any sin? Absolutely no one of this sort! The so called theory of ‘Puranas’ (transmigration) is nothing but a fairy-tale. I do not have any intention to bring this unutterable trash under discussion. Do you really know the most cursed sin in this world is to be poor? Yes, poverty is a sin; it is a punishment! Cursed be the theoretician, jurist or legislator who proposes such measures as push man into the quagmire of more heinous sins. Did it not occur to your All Knowing God or he could learn the truth only after millions had undergone untold sufferings and hardships? What, according to your theory, is the fate of a person who, by no sin of his own, has been born into a family of low caste people? He is poor so he cannot go to a school. It is his fate to be shunned and hated by those who are born into a high caste. His ignorance, his poverty, and the contempt he receives from others will harden his heart towards society. Supposing that he commits a sin, who shall bear the consequences? God, or he, or the learned people of that society? What is your view about those punishments inflicted on the people who were deliberately kept ignorant by selfish and proud Brahmans? If by chance these poor creatures heard a few words of your sacred books, Vedas, these Brahmans poured melted lead into their ears. If they committed any sin, who was to be held responsible? Who was to bear the brunt? My dear friends, these theories have been coined by the privileged classes. They try to justify the power they have usurped and the riches they have robbed with the help of such theories. Perhaps it was the writer Upton Sinclair who wrote (Bhagat Singh is referring to Sinclair’s pamphlet ‘Profits of Religion’ – MIA transcriber) somewhere “only make a man firm believer in the immortality of soul, then rob him of all that he possesses. He will willingly help you in the process.” The dirty alliance between religious preachers and possessors of power brought the boon of prisons, gallows, knouts and above all such theories for the mankind.
I ask why your Omnipotent God does not hold a man back when he is about to commit a sin or offence. It is child’s play for God. Why did He not kill war lords? Why did He not obliterate the fury of war from their minds? In this way He could have saved humanity of many a great calamity and horror. Why does He not infuse humanistic sentiments into the minds of the Britishers so that they may willingly leave India? I ask why He does not fill the hearts of all capitalist classes with altruistic humanism that prompts them to give up personal possession of the means of production and this will free the whole labouring humanity from the shackles of money. You want to argue the practicability of Socialist theory, I leave it to your Almighty God to enforce it. Common people understand the merits of Socialist theory as far as general welfare is concerned but they oppose it under the pretext that it cannot be implemented. Let the Almighty step in and arrange things in a proper way. No more logic chopping! I tell you that the British rule is not there because God willed it but for the reason that we lack the will and courage to oppose it. Not that they are keeping us under subjugation with the consent of God, but it is with the force of guns and rifles, bombs and bullets, police and militia, and above all because of our apathy that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin, that is, the exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is He doing? Is He getting a diseased pleasure out of it? A Nero! A Genghis Khan! Down with Him!
Now another piece of manufactured logic! You ask me how I will explain the origin of this world and origin of man. Charles Darwin has tried to throw some light on this subject. Study his book. Also, have a look at Sohan Swami’s “Commonsense.” You will get a satisfactory answer. This topic is concerned with Biology and Natural History. This is a phenomenon of nature. The accidental mixture of different substances in the form of Nebulae gave birth to this earth. When? Study history to know this. The same process caused the evolution of animals and in the long run that of man. Read Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species.’ All the later progress is due to man’s constant conflict with nature and his efforts to utilise nature for his own benefit. This is the briefest sketch of this phenomenon.
Your next question will be why a child is born blind or lame even if he was not a sinner in his previous birth. This problem has been explained in a satisfactory manner by biologists as a mere biological phenomenon. According to them the whole burden rests upon the shoulders of parents whose conscious or unconscious deeds caused mutilation of the child prior to his birth.
You may thrust yet another question at me, though it is merely childish. The question is: If God does not really exist, why do people come to believe in Him? Brief and concise my answer will be. As they come to believe in ghosts, and evil spirits, so they also evolve a kind of belief in God: the only difference being that God is almost a universal phenomenon and well developed theological philosophy. However, I do disagree with radical philosophy. It attributes His origin to the ingenuity of exploiters who wanted to keep the people under their subjugation by preaching the existence of a Supreme Being; thus claimed an authority and sanction from Him for their privileged position. I do not differ on the essential point that all religions, faiths, theological philosophies, and religious creeds and all other such institutions in the long run become supporters of the tyrannical and exploiting institutions, men and classes. Rebellion against any king has always been a sin in every religion.
As regard the origin of God, my thought is that man created God in his imagination when he realized his weaknesses, limitations and shortcomings. In this way he got the courage to face all the trying circumstances and to meet all dangers that might occur in his life and also to restrain his outbursts in prosperity and affluence. God, with his whimsical laws and parental generosity was painted with variegated colours of imagination. He was used as a deterrent factor when his fury and his laws were repeatedly propagated so that man might not become a danger to society. He was the cry of the distressed soul for he was believed to stand as father and mother, sister and brother, brother and friend when in time of distress a man was left alone and helpless. He was Almighty and could do anything. The idea of God is helpful to a man in distress.
Society must fight against this belief in God as it fought against idol worship and other narrow conceptions of religion. In this way man will try to stand on his feet. Being realistic, he will have to throw his faith aside and face all adversaries with courage and valour. That is exactly my state of mind. My friends, it is not my vanity; it is my mode of thinking that has made me an atheist. I don’t think that by strengthening my belief in God and by offering prayers to Him every day, (this I consider to be the most degraded act on the part of man) I can bring improvement in my situation, nor can I further deteriorate it. I have read of many atheists facing all troubles boldly, so I am trying to stand like a man with the head high and erect to the last; even on the gallows.
Let us see how steadfast I am. One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.” Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Atheists face extensive discrimination, UN rights council told

Humanist group raises concerns amid new efforts by Muslim countries in UN to ban denigration of religion

  • Pakistan protest over Muhammad caricatures
Muslim countries are seeking to obtain a worldwide ban on denigration of religion, specifically what they call Islamophobia. Photograph: Rehan Khan/EPA
Atheists, humanists and freethinkers face widespread discrimination around the world, with expression of their views criminalised and even subject to capital punishment, the United Nations has been told.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) said atheism was banned by law in a number of states where people were forced to officially adopt a faith.
"Extensive discrimination by governments against atheists, humanists and the non-religious occurs worldwide," said the union, which has 120 member bodies in 45 countries.
In Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan "atheists can face the death penalty on the grounds of their belief", in violation of UN human rights accords, the IHEU said in a document submitted to the UN human rights council.
In several other countries legal measures "effectively criminalise atheism [and] the expression and manifestation of atheist beliefs" or lead to systematic discrimination against freethinkers, it said.
Three of the states on the rights council – Pakistan, Mauritania and Maldives – have legislation providing for death for blasphemy against Islam, a charge that can be applied to atheists who publicly reveal their ideas.
The paper was submitted as the council opened its annual spring session against a background of new efforts in the UN by Muslim countries to obtain a worldwide ban on denigration of religion, specifically what they call Islamophobia.
Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told the council there was a "rising trend" of Islamophobia. "We condemn all sorts of incitement to hatred and religious discrimination against Muslims and people of other faiths," he said.
This month a senior official of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) said the body would focus on getting agreement on criminalising denigration of religion in coming talks with western countries.
Last November the head of the 21-country Arab League told the UN security council in New York that his organisation wanted a binding international framework to ensure "that religious faith and its symbols are respected".
The IHEU and other non-governmental rights groupings argue that many Muslim governments use this terminology and the concept of "religious blasphemy" within their own countries to cow both atheists and followers of other religions.
A number of these governments "prosecute people who express their religious doubt or dissent, regardless of whether those dissenters identify as atheist", the IHEU document said.
Islamic countries including Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey had also stepped up prosecution of "blasphemous" expression of criticism of religion in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, it said.
OIC countries have 15 seats on the council, all from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, making up almost a third of the rights body.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Happy Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend

Charles Darwin's birthday has become not just an international holiday, but an entire evolution-themed weekend. Here are ideas for how to celebrate.
Fri, Feb 10 2012 at 12:48 PM

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British naturalist Charles Darwin strikes a pensive pose in this copy of an 1881 oil painting by John Collier. (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago Sunday, 50 years before he would forever change the field of biology with "On the Origin of Species." Another book, published 143 years later, dubbed his opus on evolution "the single best idea, ever."
The editors of that book helped found Darwin Day in the 1990s, honoring not just Darwin, but also "the achievements of humanity as represented in the acquisition of verifiable scientific knowledge." People had already been celebrating Darwin's birthday every Feb. 12 for decades, but Darwin Day became a broad, global holiday for science, with Darwin as its patriarch — sort of like a less jolly, more scholarly Santa Claus.
But while Darwin's discovery of natural selection has revolutionized science, it has also inspired generations of critics. Some distrust it for religious reasons, seeing it as a threat to Creationism or Intelligent Design, and some just don't like to think of people as animals. Darwin wasn't anti-religion, though — he was on track to be a clergyman before his fateful Galapagos trip, and his body is buried at Westminster Abbey.
If you'd like to commemorate this Darwin-packed weekend, but aren't sure how, here are a few suggestions:
• Host a Phylum Feast: Darwin enthusiasts have been holding yearly Phylum Feasts on Feb. 12 since at least the 1970s. A Phylum Feast is a potluck dinner in which all the dishes are as biodiverse as possible — ideally, each should come from a different phylum. Darwin reportedly enjoyed eating "birds and beasts ... unknown to human palate," and many people still see this as a way to embrace our evolutionary past. "Most of our day-to-day food comes from a small number of domesticated vertebrates and grasses," writes naturalist and Phylum Feast authority Frederick Schueler, "but by seeking out and identifying the diverse biotic sources of our diet in this meal, we remember our origin as omnivores, and our relatedness to other lineages."
• Make "primordial soup": Of course, the idea of a Phylum Feast can make conservationists cringe, especially when the menu includes exotic items like minke whale meat. Phyla diversity is also limited at some grocery stores, often making such feasts impractical. But you could always just make another Darwin Day favorite instead: "primordial soup." Named after the cocktail of amino acids believed to spark the first life on Earth, this dish is wide open to interpretation — from simple stews to Phylum Feasts in a pot. There's also Julia Child's version, if you're feeling more literal.
• Attend a Darwin Day event: There were more than 800 Darwin Day events worldwide in 2011, and offers a partial list of those being held in 2012. Some are one-day affairs, like Friday's Darwin Day exhibit at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Saturday's Darwin Day Beach Cleanup in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; or Sunday's annual Darwin Day Lunch in Oxford, England. Others are more stretched out, like a monthlong Darwin exhibit in Bologna, Italy; "Darwin Week" festivities in San Antonio, Texas; and a variety of three-day weekend celebrations. Darwin Day originally focused on lectures by prominent scientists, but today it has expanded to include debates, museum exhibits, film festivals, art shows, essay contests and more. Some even use the holiday to jointly honor U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who was also born on Feb. 12, 1809.

• Read "On the Origin of Species": Not only is the full text of Darwin's seminal work available online, but so are all of his publications. It's a lot to absorb in one day, or even three days, but a chilly weekend like this one might nonetheless be a good time to dig in — with a steaming bowl of primordial soup, of course.
For more information about evolution by natural selection, check out this classic (and animated) explanation by the late astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan:
Have other ideas for celebrating Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend? Let us know in the comments below.
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Thursday, 24 January 2013

Don’t Replace Religion; End It

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette is the author of "Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!" and "God, No!"
JANUARY 22, 2013
Religion cannot and should not be replaced by atheism. Religion needs to go away and not be replaced by anything. Atheism is not a religion. It’s the absence of religion, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Religion is not morality. Theists ask me, “If there’s no god, what would stop me from raping and killing everyone I want to.” My answer is always: “I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to ... and the number for both is zero.” Behaving morally because of a hope of reward or a fear of punishment is not morality. Morality is not bribery or threats. Religion is bribery and threats. Humans have morality. We don’t need religion.
Atheism is the absence of religion. We don’t really need atheism. We just need to get rid of religion.
Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share. Feeling love is beautiful. Feeling the earth is 6,000 years old is stupid.
Religion is often just tribalism: pride in a group one was born into, a group that is often believed to have “God” on its side. We don’t need to replace tribalism with anything other than love for all humanity. Let’s do that, okay?
Religion also includes fellowship, joy, compassion, service and great music, and those can be replaced by ... fellowship, joy, compassion, service and great music.
Atheism is the absence of religion. We don’t really need atheism. We just need to get rid of religion.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Pastafarians push to register Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster in Poland

Polish adherents of the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are trying to have their creed registered as an official faith.

Touched by his Noodly Appendage: Niklas Jansson - wikipedia
An application has been submitted to the Ministry of Administration and Digitization, and the resulting decision is due by the end of January.
“Just as the Orange Alternative fought with communism, so pastafarians are fighting with the vast influence of the [Roman Catholic] clergy,” said Armand Ryfinski, MP for liberal party Palikot's Movement, as quoted by the Gazeta Polska Codziennie daily.
Ryfinski is one of the administrators of the Polish Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's web site.
The anti-clerical Palikot's Movement is currently the third largest party in Poland's parliament.
Pastafarians state that the world was created by Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Prayers end with the word r'amen, in an allusion to the Japanese noodle dish ramen, and the amen of Christian worship.
Pastafarianism emerged in America in 2005, after physics student Bobby Henderson protested against the Kansas State Board of Education's decision to permit the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to creationism in science classes.
In Poland, conservative politicians are branding the bid to register the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as an anti-Catholic provocation.
“We are going to monitor these events, as there are already far too many of them,” said Andrzej Jaworski, MP for conservative opposition party Law and Justice. (nh)

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Prayer in public meetings

Should governments hold prayers before or during public meetings? Nothing fails like prayer in government

By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. Calling upon other elected officials and citizens to rise and pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of county government. Supervisors, after all, are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They don’t need to worship on taxpayers’ time. That line between the Jeffersonian “wall of separation between church and state” is being crossed when elected officials misuse their authority to promote their personal religious views at government functions.
A government board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion. Such governmental endorsement of religion excludes the 15 percent of the American population that is nonreligious (American Religious Identification Survey 2008), including more than 1 million Virginians.
The numbers of nonreligious are growing rapidly in this country, as shown by the Pew Forum’s survey last year finding one in five adults has no religious affiliation. We nonreligious citizens are offended, excluded and made to feel like political outsiders when our government oversteps its power to conduct or impose prayer. Since government prayer often invokes Jesus and Christianity, it also turns those of other faiths into second-class citizens.
America was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom from religion in government. They sought to escape tyrants who told them which church to support, what religious rituals to engage in, or what to believe or disbelieve. Whether to pray, whether to believe in a god who answers prayer, is an intensely personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience.
The U.S. founders who adopted our entirely godless Constitution knew there can be no religious liberty without the freedom to dissent. If the framers of our Constitution found no need to pray when they adopted our secular Constitution, why does the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors need to pray over sewers, building permits and variances? Isn’t it a bit vain to imagine that a deity, if there is one, would be interested in the prayerful demands of supervisors anyway?
If constitutional injunctions do not impress, perhaps scriptural ones will. Christians who know their Bible are familiar with the biblical injunction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, condemning public prayer as hypocrisy, and advising:
“Enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.”

Monday, 7 January 2013

It is here and it is now


IN a recent conversation with a fellow journalist, I voiced my exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life. Atheists cannot find solace in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven. “That only shows the limits of atheism,” my colleague replied. “It’s all about nonbelief and has nothing to offer when people are suffering.”

This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans —roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions.

The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize. When giving talks on college campuses, I used to avoid personal discussions of my atheism. But over the years, I have changed my mind because such diffidence contributes to the false image of the atheist as someone whose convictions are removed from ordinary experience. It is vital to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, and wherever else human beings suffer and die.

Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.”
Just two years later, in 1954, Jonas Salk’s vaccine began the process of eradicating polio, and my mother took the opportunity to suggest that God may have guided his research. I remember replying, “Well, God should have guided the doctors a long time ago so that Al wouldn’t be in an iron lung.” (He was to die only eight years later, by which time I was a committed atheist.)
The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.
IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
Today’s atheists would do well to emulate some of the great 19th-century American freethinkers, who insisted that reason and emotion were not opposed but complementary.
Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899 and was one of the most famous orators of his generation, personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll insisted that there was no difference between atheism and agnosticism because it was impossible for anyone to “know” whether God existed or not. He used his secular pulpit to advocate for social causes like justice for African-Americans, women’s rights, prison reform and the elimination of cruelty to animals
He also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest ... The dead do not suffer.”
Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.
We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.
Finally, we need to show up at gravesides, as Ingersoll did, to offer whatever consolation we can.
In his speech at an interfaith prayer vigil in Newtown on Dec. 16, President Obama observed that “the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning?” He could easily have amended that to “the world’s religions and secular philosophies.” He could have said something like, “Whether you are religious or nonreligious, may you find solace in the knowledge that the suffering is ours, but that those we love suffer no more.” 
Somewhere in that audience, and in the larger national audience, there were mourners who would have been comforted by the acknowledgment that their lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life, but “only perfect rest.